Bristol Beer Factory
Beer city’s OG, championing drinkability
Saturday 13 February 2021
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A bona fide institution, Bristol Beer Factory was among the very first wave of UK craft breweries in the early 2000s, and has been an inspiration to others setting up in what has arguably become the UK’s second beer city. It was among the first to bring American West Coast-style IPAs to these shores, and pioneered milk stouts using a historical British recipe. And, while it continues to innovate on many fronts, it also embodies a shift back toward more balanced, drinkable and consistent brewing in the UK.
The brewery’s longevity is no accident, but the result of a refusal to rest on its laurels. Each year, a strategy team consisting of the directors, sales and head brewer, meets in January to plot its course over the following 12 months, asking what its priorities should be and setting broad projects to take the brewery forward. A few years ago, this meant a renewed commitment to cask, at a time when many prominent cask breweries were abandoning the format. Then came a focus on the city from which it takes its name, working with local artists and craftspeople on a wide range of projects. Then there’s been a year of intense new recipe development, a year perfecting lager and a year of kegged Belgian-style brews.
“We basically try to have the longest time horizon in the industry,” says the brewery’s Tom Clermont. “So instead of trying to follow the trends, or even anticipate them, we very much want to stick to our core principles of being high quality technical brewers, and a fiercely independent part of the Bristol community. Particularly in the past 12 months, there are just so many factors that are outside of your control, so we’ve really been burrowing into those areas we can control, like improving our brewing and trying to give people reasons to be excited. It’s a very self-reflective brewery to work for, which is great.”
A big part of Bristol Beer Factory’s plans for this year involve supporting the pubs reopening, by giving particularly local drinkers a good reason to venture out.
“Every time a lockdown has finished, we’ve come out with a bang, with a full range of beers and some specials, rather than just limping back with one beer that’s four weeks old. That’s meant we’ve got burned and had to pour some beer away when the rules tightened up again, but so be it. We want to be right in the middle of things when it’s safe to make a socially distanced return to the pubs.”
Other plans include continuing to innovate across all formats. Bristol Beer Factory still puts around 75% of its new beers into cask, and the vast majority of its small pack is bottled. However, 2020 has seen it dip its toe in the water with cans, via some successful collaborations, and Tom says the team is now happy it is able to can without compromising on quality, so an increasing proportion of its small-pack may be coming out that way soon.
In terms of other trends, Tom like many sees the appetite for low and no alcohol beer continuing to grow through 2021. BBF’s first foray into this area is the truly excellent Clear Head, a 0.5% IPA brewed in support of Talk Club, a men’s mental fitness charity. It’s been a full year in the making, and the brewery’s technical chops really show in this tricky brew, where the lack of alcohol is offset by a touch of lactose for body, and classic Mosaic and Citra fruity notes are followed by a moreish, firm bitterness.
Finally, Tom repeats an observation that we’ve heard more and more over the past six months or so; that UK beer lovers are suffering from a kind of ‘extremity fatigue,’ and looking for something that’s reliably easy and enjoyable to drink.
“We essentially want to brew beers that, if you’re only having a half, you’re really glad you had that half because it’s full of flavour. But if the conversation’s flowing and you want to stay out longer you can say ‘oh, yeah, another one’ and that's all the beer chat you need to have. I think there’s a lot of us out there who got into craft more than three years ago, who’ve been on that journey of being excited about DIPAs, and milkshake IPAs and brut IPAs. And those people still want to experiment, but maybe just at the start of the evening, and just with breweries they know they can trust.”
Espresso Martini, the brew in this month’s Beer52 box brings a lot of these threads together. A coffee milk stout, it harks back to one of the brewery’s early iconic beers and typifies its commitment to balance and drinkability, with a full, luxurious body at a sensible ABV. The coffee also comes from Bristol-based roaster Wogan Coffee, with which the brewery has a long-standing relationship.
“The first time we brewed this, it was cask-only, so it’s a Beer52 exclusive in bottle,” says Tom. “We tasted it out of tank about three days ago and it’s exactly what we want. It has this really malty backbone of Crystal malts, then dark malts to give it those lovely roasty notes. This means the coffee can be really intense but not overpower it. You’re getting that balance between the lactose, the malt and the coffee, for this sweet, round, mellow beer. I’m really excited for your members to try it.”
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